Talk to Larry Strauss about coaching and you end up discussing writing. Ask him about the writer's imagination and you also learn a lot about teaching.
A conversation with Strauss is a holistic experience.
Like many of his brethren at L.A. Unified's magnet high schools, Larry Strauss is not your typical teacher. A former dropout and street basketball player who has written an impressive list of nonfiction books, Strauss came three years ago to a job he calls "frontier teaching."
It's an attitude reflected in his dual role as teacher of English and coach of basketball, and in his just-released first novel, "Fake Out" (Holloway House), the story of a high-powered college basketball coach who discovers that indulging his humanity is ultimately more fulfilling than winning at all costs.
Strauss, 35, is one of 13 teachers at Middle College High School, on the campus of L.A. Southwest Community College. The school is part of a nationwide program of 21 schools that, while members of their respective public school districts, are joined academically and physically with community college partners.
The concept, explains Middle College High Principal Natalie Battersbee, is "to draw above-average, bright kids who need a small setting . . . where they are more involved in what's going on with the curriculum."
As are the teachers. In winter, Strauss and math teacher Roger Butcher also serve as basketball coaches, and many of the boys and girls whose spelling and algebraic skills they work to improve are also the ones whose bounce passes they try to perfect.
While some magnet schools are large institutions, 325-student Middle College often struggles for recognition. The school, Strauss says, used to look "like a probation camp. Junior high school counselors had been told Middle College was a school for at-risk kids of above-average intelligence with potential. Apparently they didn't hear the last two things, because they sent some real troublemakers here."
Now, he says, running a hand through his gray buzz-cut hair, "the student population looks like a smaller version of any other inner-city school."
If Middle College generally achieves academic parity with other schools in the district, disparity on the basketball court is a fact of life, fraught with problems both practical and philosophical.
Four years ago, student Tim Daniels, who now attends L.A. City College, asked Butcher to coach a school basketball team.
The idea seemed preposterous. Middle College had no gym, no equipment, no budget and no respect.
Some Magnet League schools didn't exactly relish the idea of playing games in a public park in a gang-riven area of the inner city. They still don't. The Middle College Cougars, Strauss says, have the undeserved reputation as the kind of kids your mother doesn't want you to play with.
But much of the student body, he points out, chose Middle College precisely because they wanted to escape the gang influence at their home schools.
So Butcher and Strauss built a basketball program from the hard floor up.
They arranged to use the gym at the Weingart Urban Center YMCA on Vermont Avenue for practice, and the public gym at Jesse Owens County Park at Century Boulevard and Western Avenue to play home games. They also arranged for student transport to games as far-flung as Reseda and East L.A., equipment, uniforms and gym security.
Logistic challenges aside, it's also tough to keep 10 or 12 sufficiently skilled players academically eligible. Many of the school's students have spent their lives surrounded by crime, family strife and the expectation of failure. It doesn't afford the kind of focus a coach prefers, but it's an environment in which this teacher thrives.
"I was attracted to teaching at a non-traditional school," says Strauss, who dropped out of high school when he was 16, "because I felt that part of my own failure as a student was the traditional mode of education."
Having moved from New York City to Southern California as a teen-ager, Strauss attended Santa Monica High School, where, he says, "they failed to reach me. I take partial responsibility, but I'm not as dumb as I demonstrated at that school . . . and I see that in some of my kids today.
"What happens at school is that the teacher becomes a detached mouthpiece for Western civilization and students just sit there, bored. They no longer care what the teacher thinks, they just care what grade he writes. So what I try to do as a teacher is to model good parenting. If you care about them they're going to learn more."
It cuts both ways.
Strauss left the full-time writing life he had pursued since 17 to teach because "my real passion is writing fiction and I feel that a writer needs to be a participant. I was too removed. I hadn't had enough experience to be a good fiction writer. I wanted to become a teacher to do something meaningful."
So which came first, coaching basketball or the idea for "Fake Out," in the dedication of which Strauss names the individual members of last year's Middle College varsity boys team?
The story line concerns the Bobby Knight-like coach Nick Cruschenctuwitz ("Captain Crunch"), who embarks on a search of Harlem to find the point guard who promises to make his team a national collegiate champ, but who mysteriously fails to show up as expected on campus.
"The idea for the book came first, but coaching helped me write it," says Strauss, who cultivates an ear for street lingo, jots it down on 3-by-5 cards and stuffs them into his pocket for later literary regurgitation.
Sometimes, he believes, writing is inseparable from teaching.
"My sensibility as a writer is approaching a class as though it's something I'm writing, that it has a climax," he explains. "I always know when the climax comes, the moment I'm trying to tie things together. . . . The best classes are where I'm not sure what the climax is until I get there.
"To entertain is an important part of both writing and teaching," Strauss emphasizes. "Writing that has contempt for entertainment is pretentious. Good teaching is entertaining--the biggest student complaint isn't that the class is too hard, but that it's boring."
If "Fake Out" reflects Strauss' Middle College experience, it also invokes his youth. He played street ball in Riverside Park and grew up eight blocks from Harlem, where the book takes place.
Strauss ascribes his coaching ability to the same skill that enables him to teach and to write.
"It's the ability to imagine things, to see the possibilities. The most important coaching I do is the one-on-one coaching, in practice, during the game and even after the game. It's like being a brother or father . . . knowing your players is knowing how to relate to them."
Such relationships drive the central conflict in the book, which Strauss summarizes: "Which is more important, the person or the player?" In the search for his top recruit, Captain Crunch meets the phenom's cousin, who is as gifted intellectually as the player is athletically.
Eventually Crunch must decide whether to exploit the cousin in order to find the player, and to win, or to provide a means for the student to reach his potential, and lose.
Reflections of a reality that bites. For Coach Strauss, winning games sometimes prevents Teacher Strauss form winning hearts and minds.
The teacher's mission is to keep students in school, "to get these kids educated, prepared for college or a job. To be good people, to be curious, to be skeptical. To be critical thinkers, to be disciplined.
"But when I get on the basketball court and there's another team and another coach at the end of the bench, I only want to win."
You can't win without your best players, and sometimes your best players are your worst students.
"We face a moral dilemma," Strauss explains. "If you have a brink player in your class, if you flunk him and he loses his eligibility, he may drop out of school altogether. He stays in class in order to play basketball. So what good are you doing him and the team by not letting him play?"
Recently, one boy's ineligibility reflected trouble far removed from either classroom or basketball court. His father was in jail and his mother was dying of cancer.
"Here's a kid I could either have flunked or given a D," Strauss says. "I took his situation into consideration--he's about to lose the only person who loves him unconditionally. At times, you have to factor in other things (than purely academic performance)."
Although the Cougar basketball program is viable, that's not to say it runs smoothly. Sometimes, on the morning of a game, the team is bumped from using the gym, creating a last-minute scramble. Last year, a Middle College player was jumped in the parking lot after a game at Jesse Owens County Park, prompting other schools to refuse to play at the Cougars' home court.
That's a rich irony for senior guard Ashley Henkis, co-captain of the boys' varsity team. He chose to attend Middle College because his home school is Bloods turf, and he lives in a neighborhood claimed by the Hoover Criminals. Henkis, who has a 3.6 grade-point average, needs his education: He wants to be a doctor.
Even the sweet-faced Henkis indulges in an occasional burst of temper on the court, and many of his teammates consider an intimidating game face as much a part of their uniform as their maroon jerseys--hardened veterans, Strauss suggests, of the inner-city life.
Tim Daniels was one. He arrived at Middle College as a tough guy almost no one could reach, but left as a mentor to younger students, with respect for the intellectual life. His attitude was adjusted by several teachers he calls exceptional, including Strauss.
Strauss, Daniels says, "treats people as individuals. He didn't judge me for my bad past--he helped me leave it in the past in order to make my future better. He helped me mature, taught me goals and values. . . . He helped me use language instead of my fists."
At a girls game against the Sherman Oaks Center for Enrichment Studies, Strauss is unhappy with a lack of player motivation and an abundance of stupid mistakes.
One of his players falls to the floor in pain and another--concerned--rushes onto the court. Having neglected to check in at the scorer's table, she is awarded a technical foul. Strauss yells at her, a rare lapse he later describes as having "turned into Captain Crunch."
After the game, he apologizes to his player. "I lost it," he admits, "because she was being more of a human being at the time than a basketball player."
He casts his blue eyes heavenward: "One thing I keep remembering: If we've got seven eligible players who remember to bring their uniforms, two referees who've gotten paid, we've got the gym reserved and the scoreboard working and we can get through thirty-two minutes without a fight and without one of our players going to the phone booth to call his homies. . . . If we can get through that, then the next thing you look at is, 'Did we win?' "